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Soaked with Knowledge: Kulshan Creek at Rasar State Park

June 2nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

All photography courtesy of Adam Bates, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

Youth have a unique skill in creating adventures out of anything. So even though I had been to tree planting on Cornet Bay and the Migratory Bird Festival with the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program, both large and expansive day trips, our last trip to Rasar State Park felt no less adventurous!

The day started off wet. That might seem ubiquitous living in western Washington but we had been without rain for two full weeks at this point. The rain was a welcome change from weeks of dry, hot, sunny days.


Observing snails and slugs.

» Continue reading Soaked with Knowledge: Kulshan Creek at Rasar State Park

Censored Cover

Dear Mountain School,

January 21st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Dear Mountain School,

Thank you for the fun hikes and delicious food. I loved looking at pieces of the forest in the microscope lab.



It is rare to hear first hand from students what they remember the most from their educational experiences. Whenever it happens it is one of the best gifts an educator can receive. Early this week Whatcom Hills Waldorf School sent the Mountain School staff letters about their time spent last fall season in the mountains of the North Cascades.

Each letter was filled not only with thankfulness but depictions of some of the best teaching spots during Mountain School. All of the names have been censored for the students’ protection.

Censored Stream

» Continue reading Dear Mountain School,

MS Fall 2015 Cover

Mountain School: Celebrating 25 Years and the end of the Fall Season

November 22nd, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

For the past 25 years, the North Cascades Institute has been teaching students about their wild nearby through the Mountain School program. The program started back in 1990 and was based out of Newhalem, WA. Tracie Johannessen, who lead the program when it started and is the current Education Director at the Institute, informed the newest Mountain School instructors during training that “Mountain School used to be based out of tents in Newhalem. Other than the location change (up to the Environmental Learning Center in Diablo in 2005) and tweeks in the curriculum here and there, the program has been consistent.”

The typical, three day program for fifth grade students has a simple ABC format: Abiotic, Biotic and Community days. As Tracie said, every student coming for Mountain School over the past 25 years has experienced the North Cascades in this way. This fall 1,230 students from 19 schools joined this legacy.

MS Fall 2015 Bus

Two students ready for an awesome three days!

After driving anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours on a bus, the students arrive with big smiles and arms full of luggage. Some of the schools have been coming for 25 years, so these students have been hearing about this journey from their older schoolmates. They then drop off the luggage and go through a humorous and informative orientation about the Environmental Learning Center, the North Cascades National Park, and what to expect for the next three days. The students are then divided into trail groups of 10 students maximum per instructor.

» Continue reading Mountain School: Celebrating 25 Years and the end of the Fall Season

Columbia Rececca Wiederhold

Mountain School is ON!: Playing in the Snow, Compensating for the Government Shutdown

February 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Columbia Elementary School was already told once they couldn’t come to Mountain School as planned. So they certainly weren’t going to let the biggest local snowstorm of the year so far stop them from enjoying a second chance to learn about ecology, carnivores, and community during their rescheduled visit last week.

During this past October’s government shutdown, four of the North Cascade Institute’s Mountain School sessions had to be cancelled because the Institute is in a national park and all federal operations were mandated to close. Over 250 fifth graders from Bellingham were told they couldn’t have their seminal 5th grade experience in the wilderness as expected. Some teachers, including Columbia’s, wisely used this misfortune as a teachable moment, organizing students to write letters to their local representatives expressing their discontent. Though the government “re-opened” after 16 days, and the Institute was able to make up one of these cancelled schools by extending its fall season by one session, what about the rest of the students?

The answer? Spring season. Mountain School started three weeks early this year.

It was, however, nearly a false start.

Columbia’s estimated time of arrival was late morning, weather depending. Nine graduate students, four new seasonal naturalists, two staff naturalists, the Mountain School Program Coordinator, and the rest of the Environmental Learning Center community were eager to meet the 83 4th and 5th grade students. But the snow started to fall heavily around Newhalem, eight miles west of the Learning Center and the beginning of a stretch of road prone to rock fall and avalanches. The two yellow school buses were parked. Students built snowmen. The adults deliberated. Mountain School representatives traveled down Highway 20 to meet them and assess possible options. Would the buses be able to drive safely down the hill toward the road atop Diablo Dam?

After much consideration and lunch, they decided that yes, the buses would make it. Mountain School or bust! Columbia Elementary arrived successfully at the Environmental Learning Center in the early afternoon. Most of the instructors had not taught in the snow before. And as the snow became rain, the white trails turned to muddy slush, making for a challenging start. Luckily we had plenty of Mountain School gear (much of it donated) to augment the students’ clothing.

Columbia Rececca WiederholdNot your everyday lesson: Students learn to build a snow shelter. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdLunchtime smiles. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdOne of many snow-folk that popped up around the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.

Day two is our longest, all-day stretch in the field. This time, the temperature fell by a few degrees, and the previous day’s raindrops transitioned, fortunately, back into snowflakes. These eight hours highlighted one of the characteristics for which experiential educators are best known: Flexibility! Instead of proceeding with our lessons as planned, many of us delved into snow science, how to build snow shelters, and making “real” glaciers through layers and layers of compacted snow. Building snowmen became a popular team-building exercise. Friendly snowball fights were irresistible, becoming a mandatory component of everyone’s day. A lesson on animal signs was improved from the normal discussion by the opportunity to make various animals’ tracks in the snow. Most trail groups stayed closer to campus than usual, warming up every couple of hours with new, dry gear and hot chocolate courtesy of Chef Shelby. Transitioning from an outdoor-based curriculum to the necessity of more classroom time was a bit challenging for several instructors, since one of the main opportunities of Mountain School is to get these students out in the fresh air, beyond the four walls of their typical educational experience and honing their observation skills in nature. But the students didn’t seem to mind, for the most part, and it was a good exercise for the instructors to consider what lessons and games would transfer well to the indoors.

Despite such issues, the students had a memorable and unique three days at Mountain School. As they got ready to get back on their school buses, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many of them say they wish they could stay here instead of going home. Having “school” in the national park is always a different experience than being in a classroom down valley, of course, but the addition of snow made it something magical. Because really, how more “mountain” can you get than falling snow?

Columbia Rececca WiederholdA student gets a better look at a bird. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdAnd when the weather gets too bad, or the students need to warm up, there are the indoor classrooms. Microscopes are always a hit. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Shannon SampsonIt’s a different forest, and a different teaching opportunity, when covered in snow. Photo by Shannon Sampson.
Leading photo: Students LOVE the snow! This trail group poses, beaming, in front of their small snow shelter. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and co-editor of Chattermarks. She is looking forward to the upcoming transition from “primarily grad student” to “mostly Mountain School instructor”.




New Tracks at the Environmental Learning Center: Winter Mountain School

January 18th, 2012 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Middle school students from Lopez Middle School sit excitedly on the wooden benches of the amphitheater for Mountain School orientation. Mittens and gloves fly into the air with eager answers when students are asked what they have seen driving in the school bus up-valley that morning – waterfalls, mountains, more waterfalls. Orientation continues, skits about respecting nature and each other ensue, and somewhere out of what was once a stunningly blue winter sky that morning, snow begins to fall. Cheers roar, and observations of fallen flakes on coat jackets begin. It is January, and Mountain School is in session.

January 9, 2012 marked the opening of a new Mountain School season – the first winter sessions ever at the Environmental Learning Center campus. Lopez Middle School and Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute joined staff and graduate students for four days of exploring winter ecology, looking for animals signs, tracking twigs, and playing in our mountain snow.

Students from Lopez had one thing on their minds when they drove across Diablo Dam: snow. Coming from the San Juan Islands where snow is rare, promises of snow covered peaks and sledding opportunities had students eager to be outside. Lopez students participated in the classic Ecosystems Explorations curriculum with a seasonal twist.

Lopez Middle School students explore trails at the Environmental Learning Center with graduate student Alex Patia. Photo by Jessica Newley.

» Continue reading New Tracks at the Environmental Learning Center: Winter Mountain School